Friday, April 16, 2010

On The Cheap

Well, the latest coffeepot commotion to strike the Puget Sound region is the revelation by The National Labor Committee (an advocacy group with an official-sounding name) that Microsoft uses teenage workers in China to make computer mice. Sort of. The actual story is that a factory that Microsoft, along with a number of other companies, buys from has been alleged to use run-of-the-mill sweatshop practices to keep its prices low. Not to downplay these findings, but it seems a little (or a lot) like a scholarly research paper that tells us that water is, in fact, wet.

The issue with the Chinese-made mice is the confluence of three different aspects of a sort of collective self-image among the stereotypical "average American." Two of them are in direct conflict – self-importance and price sensitivity effectively guarantee that most Americans would balk at paying for a mouse manufactured by someone who was paid as much as they themselves would demand to do the labor. And these two factors are together in conflict with a self-styled compassion that prohibits us from openly acknowledging the fact that so much menial manufacturing labor is done in China for the very reason that wages there are between 5 and 20 percent of what they would be here.

Unable to combat either the self-importance or price sensitivity, activists instead play on the compassion angle. But unable to press people to change their behavior without engaging the two taboo parts of the equation, anti-exploitation campaigners instead look for the powerful to exert a level of noblesse oblige and through their own actions bar the public from access to choices that result in the taking advantage of others’ poverty. In this case, that means trotting out a report full of estimates and anonymous interviews in an attempt to lever Microsoft into leaning on its vendors.

No comments: